Wayne Rooney wore rosary beads around his neck in training the other day but they might be better employed by Fabio Capello to say a few Hail Marys that England's attacking talisman remains fit.
Rooney, Europe's second-highest scorer in qualifying with nine goals, is absolutely vital to his country's hopes of success in South Africa – a view endorsed by Gary Lineker, the former England striker and adidas Golden Shoe winner. Lineker was part of the team that reached the last four at Italia 1990 – the furthest England have travelled in any FIFA World Cup™ beyond home shores. He believes that for coach Capello to repeat or even surpass Bobby Robson's semi-final journey with England 20 years ago, the Italian will need Rooney at the peak of his powers.
Lineker, who will head the BBC's coverage of South Africa 2010, told FIFA.com: "He will be the key thing for success. We need a fit and on-form Wayne Rooney. He is one of the best players in the world and this is his big chance to show that on the world stage." Citing Rooney's development during the four years since his debut FIFA World Cup campaign in 2006, Lineker added: "He has learned about the game, he doesn't chase people with the ball willy-nilly as he used to. He plays in a central position and reserves his energy a bit better. His movement in the box has got better."
Rooney comes into this FIFA World Cup on the back of his most prolific goalscoring season. The Manchester United player met the challenge of filling the central striking slot vacated by Cristiano Ronaldo with his customary confidence and enthusiasm, hitting 35 goals in all competitions – quite an improvement on the 17 he had managed in 2008/09 when often employed as a wide attacker. Alan Shearer, another former England FIFA World Cup striker on BBC duty here in South Africa, said: "He is spending a lot more time in the penalty area and that is the reason he is scoring more goals and getting into more threatening positions. I don't think England could win it without him – a hell of a lot revolves around him."
Fitness and flashpoints
Capello will hope Rooney can remain clear of the injury problems that have stalked him previously at major tournaments. A metatarsal fracture forced him out of England's UEFA EURO 2004 quarter-final against Portugal, which they eventually lost on spot-kicks. He suffered another foot fracture in the run-up to Germany 2006 and was not at his best – his frustrations boiling over when he stamped on Portugal defender Ricardo Carvalho during another eventual last-eight loss on penalties.
According to Lineker, Rooney "wasn't right" in 2006 and is now "a more mature person", not least through having become a father last October. Yet the spectre of Rooney's temper returned as a talking point this week after his yellow card during a warm-up game against club side Platinum Stars for an outburst at referee Jeff Selogilwe. The South African match official later told reporters: "He could get sent off in the World Cup, especially if he uses this kind of language."
For all the ensuing headlines about Rooney's perceived achilles heel, the England-based USA defender Jay DeMerit believes he has largely succeeded in controlling a temper that earned him more yellow cards than goals in his one season at his first club Everton. "I don't think it is as easy as people think it is to wind him up," said the American who will line up against Rooney in Saturday's Group C opener in Rustenburg.
England's more optimistic fans might even hope Rooney can emulate Diego Maradona, who ended his first FIFA World Cup in Spain with a red card – but returned four years later to inspire Argentina to glory in Mexico. It is not as far-fetched as it might sound even if Lineker doubts any player could dominate a tournament as Maradona did in 1986. Yet Lineker concedes Rooney is one of three players with the potential to come close. "It could be Ronaldo, it could be [Lionel] Messi, it could be Rooney – those are the three you think are capable of it. Maradona was Maradona and whether they can quite do it to that degree, maybe Messi could," said Lineker who was in the England team beaten by Maradona's Argentina in Mexico.
Not surprisingly, Rooney himself is just raring to go. "I can't wait now," he said after scoring one goal and setting up another against the Platinum Stars. It is six years now since the 18-year-old Liverpudlian left Europe open-mouthed with his fearless performances for England at EURO 2004. Had he remained fit, England may well have progressed beyond the quarter-finals. The same could well apply now – time then perhaps for England supporters to reach for their rosary beads too.